There comes a point in learning any tune when we need to begin practicing it two different ways. Up to a point the learning process has to be about getting all the notes, timing and tempo precise (and the lyrics if it’s a song). After the point when you’re consistently playing it right, it’s time to add the second practice format: playing it well.
What’s the difference? Playing a piece well means making it musical, expressive, flowing, and enjoyable for a listener; no longer concentrating on formulaic and robotic aspects, and just sinking in to the music; letting it become more than just a succession of accurate notes. Assuming your technique is in place, let’s look at how you might approach expression. For example, here’s what I do:
First I assume that the name of the piece is a clue to its intended mood. However, that can sometimes be misleading, as I’ve mentioned in the past. Learning also about the origin of the piece is a good idea. (i.e. “The Wild Geese” is not about pretty flying geese, but about a sad historical event). Not only will research help you play the piece in an appropriate way, but it will provide interesting verbal introductions.
Next, I choose a tempo. Sometimes tempo is indicated on an arrangement, but when it’s not, it’s up to you to discern. (Remember the time signature has nothing to do with tempo!)These days we have You Tube for reference. I find it helpful if I listen to enough different versions and artists to get a good average. You’ll probably notice that some versions leave you cold and others are quite inspiring. It’s not so much a specific piece of music, but how it’s played that touches a listener. (For instance, I used to hate certain songs until I heard Willy Nelson sing them!)
I find it almost useless to try to learn a piece I have not heard. The page does not speak to me. If I hear it played expressively, I can feel if I want to express it similarly or not. Just copying someone’s playing doesn’t give it any individuality, so I won’t do that. However, copying expression is a good exercise if you’re uncertain of how to create it for yourself. I remember seeing footage of Segovia teaching a student on classical guitar and requiring that the student play the piece exactly as he played it. He’d play a phrase and have the student repeat it back to him, and if it didn’t sound like a recording of himself he would scold. The point was, I’m sure, that the student would in the future develop his own style, but like an art student copying masters’ paintings, copying a master’s musical expression can be an aid in learning.
Expressive playing is not a recitation but a conversation. It has to be animated if you want anyone to listen. Expression involves dynamics, a mood quality (flowing, dancing, strident… depending on the mood of the piece), a feeling of confidence; it means living the music. I put myself in the mood I want to portray, sort of like method acting. But it doesn’t feel like acting; it feels like real life. Music is the purposeful re-living of some feeling or event. I don’t have to force the feeling out of a piece; I just feel it and it flows out.
You may find at first when you begin to add expression, accuracy flies out the window. At first, don’t let that worry you. It’s not an either/or thing forever. It just takes practice. But at first if you try to play accurately while you’re trying to play expressively, expression won’t develop. Just let the goofs slide by and keep going. This might be challenging since the habit trying to play accurately causes the brain to continue to engage with technique rather than make the switch to feeling. Developing a new skill means re-training the brain to function in a new way. Keep trying until you can ignore the mistakes.
After successfully learning to play a piece with feeling, then add the element of accuracy back in. Musicians have to “split the brain” into several different processes at once, and these can be compatibly done.
Some people put the cart before the horse, playing with great expression before there is any development of skill. It’s good if you can develop both at the same time, but expression is not a substitute for skill (or vice versa). Don’t skimp on technical practice.
Once I’m able to play a piece with both accuracy and expression, it’s ready for performance. But keeping it in practice means that sometimes one has to practice for accuracy and at other times for expression, and then for both. If I don’t take the two elements apart occasionally, I am in danger of losing one of them. I choose one day to play for one element and another day for the other.
Happy expressive playing!